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August 22, 2003
As if we didn't already have enough controversy in church, this Sunday's readings include Paul's advice to people in the church at Ephesus:

Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.
Wives, be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord.
For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is
the head of the church... Husbands, love your wives,
as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her...

Oh, dear. Most preachers preach on the gospel reading on Sunday, which this week is yet another one about bread -- our sixth? -- and just leave the Ephesian husbands and wives to work things out among themselves.

But give a thought to newcomers who might wander into your church this Sunday. I know a woman who came to an Episcopal church for the first time during a reading of this passage and turned around and walked out. Old-timers know to roll their eyes during the reading, to tease the person who had to read that this Sunday, to joke with each other at coffee hour about the battle between the sexes, about how things have changed and how they have not. A newcomer doesn't know you can do any of those things. If someone new hears such advice read in public and not addressed, she assumes it's the current teaching of the church and that everybody there agrees with it.

So here's a bit of theatre wisdom: don't put an iguana on the stage if there's no iguana in the script. If you've got a hot button passage like this one, preach on it or leave it out. These folks have probably had enough bread in the sermons. Me, I couldn't eat another bite.

First thing: remind them that Paul wasn't married. Anything he knew about the institution was either memories of his childhood or hearsay. An important man with many a fine idea, but he's not our best witness on this subject.

Second, remind them what women's lives were like then, how like property they were. That most marriages were arranged, and their consent not sought. That the friendship of equals between a man and a woman was not to be expected, within or without the bonds of marriage. That the advice of Paul to men that they should love their wives as themselves must have seemed radical to his hearers, who may have related to their wives as if they were children or slaves, not equals.

But can an equal submit to an equal? Of course she can -- she can decide to do that. But it was the blinders of the age that made Paul expect that she would -- this was all a long time ago. People were who they were then, just as we are who we are.

Our goal, in being faithful to scripture, is not to seek to become people of the first century. Or the fourth century. Or the sixteenth, or even the twentieth. It can never again be the 1950's. What is asked of us is not that we go back in time. Time only moves forward.

So why are we reading this in public worship, then, if not to advise couples to take on a power balance in marriage appropriate to life in Asia Minor in the first century?

Because it is important for us to see where we have been, as a community over time, and not to forget. Because it is important for us to see that scripture sometimes enshrines the assumptions of culture, and not always for the best. You can't tear it out of the Bible and pass it around, the way you might a recipe from a magazine. You must be much more careful with it. We must read it critically and carefully, understand the medium in which it grew, understand what the world has become since it was written.

Scripture is like yeast -- it grows and leavens the whole loaf of our experience of the world into which we have been placed by God. Yeast is not bread by itself. It doesn't become bread until it leavens the load. And we don't grow from it until we eat it, and it becomes us.

I don't believe it. I just wrote a sixth sermon about bread.
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